Moloch (representing Semitic מלך m-l-, a Semitic root meaning "king") – also rendered as Molech, Molekh, Molok, Molek, Molock, Moloc, Melech, Milcom or Molcom – is the name of an ancient Ammonite god. Moloch worship was practiced by the Canaanites, Phoenician and related cultures in North Africa and the Levant.
As a god worshipped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites, Moloch had associations with a particular kind of propitiatory child sacrifice by parents. Moloch figures in the Book of Deuteronomy and in the Book of Leviticus as a form of idolatry (Leviticus 18:21: "And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch"). In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was a valley by Jerusalem, where apostate Israelites and followers of various Baalim and Caananite gods, including Moloch, sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6; Jer. 7:31, 19:2–6).
Moloch has been used figuratively in English literature from John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1955), to refer to a person or thing demanding or requiring a very costly sacrifice.
Forms and grammarThe Hebrew letters מלך (mlk) usually stand for melek 'king' (Proto-Northwest Semitic malku) but when vocalized as mōlek in Masoretic Hebrew text, they have been traditionally understood as a proper name Μολοχ (molokh) (Proto-Northwest Semitic Mulku) in the corresponding Greek renderings in the Septuagint translation, in Aquila, and in the Middle Eastern Targum. The form usually appears in the compound lmlk. The Hebrew preposition l- means "to", but it can often mean "for" or "as a(n)". Accordingly one can translate lmlk as "to Moloch" or "for Moloch" or "as a Moloch", or "to the Moloch" or "for the Moloch" or "as the Moloch", whatever a "Moloch" or "the Moloch" might be. We also once find hmlk 'the Moloch' standing by itself.
Because there is no difference between mlk 'king' and mlk 'moloch' in unpointed text, interpreters sometimes suggest molek should be understood in certain places where the Masoretic text is vocalized as melek, and vice versa.
Moloch has been traditionally interpreted as the name of a god, possibly a god titled the king, but purposely mispronounced as Molek instead of Melek using the vowels of Hebrew bosheth "shame".
Moloch appears in the Hebrew of 1 Kings 11:7(on Solomon's religious failings): Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and lmlk, the abomination of the Sons of Ammon. In other passages, however, the god of the Ammonites is named Milcom, not Moloch (see 1 Kings 11.33; Zephaniah 1.5). The Septuagint reads Milcom in 1 Kings 11.7 instead of Moloch. Many English translations accordingly follow the non-Hebrew versions at this point and render Milcom. The form mlkm can also mean "their king" as well as Milcom, and therefore one cannot always be sure in some other passages whether the King of Ammon is intended or the god Milcom. It has also been suggested that the Ba‘al of Tyre, Melqart "king of the city" (who was probably the Ba‘al whose worship was furthered by Ahab and his house) was this supposed god Moloch and that Melqart/Moloch was also Milcom the god of the Ammonites and identical to other gods whose names contain mlk.
Amos 5:26 reads in close translation:
- But you shall carry Sikkut your king,
- and Kiyyun, your images, the star-symbol of your god
- which you made for yourself.
- But you shall carry Sikkut your king,
The Septuagint renders "your king" as Moloch, perhaps from a scribal error, whence the verse appears in Acts 7.43:
- You have lifted up the shrine of Molech
- and the star of your god Rephan,
- the idols you made to worship.
- You have lifted up the shrine of Molech
Other references to Moloch use mlk only in the context of "passing children through fire lmlk", whatever is meant by lmlk, whether it means "to Moloch" or means something else. Though the Moloch sacrifices have traditionally been understood to mean burning children alive to the god Moloch, some have suggested a rite of purification by fire instead, though perhaps a dangerous one. References to passing through fire without mentioning mlk appear in 18:10–13; 2 Kings 21.6; Ezekiel 20.26, 31; 23.37. So this phrase is well documented in scripture, and similar practices of rendering infants immortal by passing them through the fire, are indirectly attested in early Greek myth, such as the myth of Thetis and the myth of Demeter as the nurse of Demophon. Some have responded to the proponents of this view of the Moloch sacrifices (being only a ritualized "pass between flame") by pointing out their failure to understand the Hebrew idiom le ha'avir ba'esh to imply "to burn" and their use of anthropological evidence of suspect relevance to draw parallels to early Hebrew religious practices.
Baal Moloch known as the Sacred Bull was conceived under the form of a calf or an ox or depicted as a man with the head of a bull. Nineteenth and early twentieth century suggested that such descriptions might be simply taken from accounts of the sacrifice to Cronus and from the tale of the Minotaur; No bull-headed Phoenician god was known. Milton wrote that Moloch was a frightening and terrible demon covered with mothers' tears and children's blood.
Moloch as devorous idol
According to legends, Moloch was represented as a huge bronze statue with the head of a bull. The statue was hollow, and inside there burned a fire which colored the Moloch a glowing red. Children were placed on the hands of the statue. Through an ingenious system the hands were raised to the mouth (as if Moloch were eating) and the children fell into the fire where they were consumed by the flames. The people gathered before the Moloch were dancing on the sounds of flutes and tambourines to drown out the screams of the victims.
The 12th century rabbi Rashi, commenting on Jeremiah 7.31 claimed that in the famous statue of Moloch, there were seven kinds of cabinets: The first was for flour, the second for turtle doves, the third for an ewe, the fourth for a ram, the fifth for a calf, the sixth for a beef, and the seventh for a child. It is because of this, Moloch is associated with Mithras and his seven mysterious gates with seven chambers. When a child was sacrificed to Moloch, a fire was lit inside the statue. The priests would then beat loudly on drums and other objects so that the cries would not be heard.
Biblical textsThe word here translated literally as 'seed' very often means offspring. The forms containing mlk have been left untranslated. The reader may substitute either "to Moloch" or "as a molk".
According to Biblical texts, the laws given to Moses by God expressly forbade the Israelites to do what was done in Egypt or in Canaan.
Leviticus 18:21: ‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. Leviticus 20:2–5: Again, you shall say to the Sons of Israel: Whoever he be of the Sons of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that gives any of his seed l'Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones. And I will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people; because he has given of his seed l'Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name. And if the people of the land do at all hide their eyes from that man, when he gives of his seed l'Molech, and do not kill him, then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go astray after him, whoring l'Molech from among the people. 2 Kings 23:10 (on King Josiah's reform): And he defiled the Tophet, which is in the valley of Ben-hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire l'Molech. Jeremiah 32:35:And they built the high places of the Ba‘al, which are in the valley of Ben-hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire l'Molech; which I did not command them, nor did it come into my mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
A temple at Amman (1400–1250 BC) excavated and reported upon by J.B. Hennessy in 1966, shows possibility of animal and human sacrifice by fire.
Classical Greek and Roman accounts
Later commentators have compared these accounts with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the Punic city of Carthage, a Phoenician colony. Cleitarchus, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn, that is to Ba‘al Hammon, the chief god of Carthage. Issues and practices relating to Moloch and child sacrifice may also have been exaggerated for effect. After the Romans defeated Carthage and totally destroyed the city, they engaged in post-war propaganda to make their arch-enemies seem cruel and less civilized.
Paul G. Mosca, in his thesis described below, translates Cleitarchus' paraphrase of a scholium to Plato's Republic as: There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the 'grin' is known as 'sardonic laughter,' since they die laughing. Diodorus Siculus (20.14) wrote: There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire. Diodorus also relates that relatives were forbidden to weep and that when Agathocles defeated Carthage, the Carthaginian nobles believed they had displeased the gods by substituting low-born children for their own children. They attempted to make amends by sacrificing 200 children of the best families at once, and in their enthusiasm actually sacrificed 300 children.
In the book The History of Sicily from the Earliest Times the author recounts the tale slightly differently. He states that the Carthaginian nobles had actually acquired and raised children not of their own for the express purpose of sacrificing them to the god. The author states that during the siege, the 200 high-born children were sacrificed in addition to another 300 children who were initially saved from the fire by the sacrifice of these acquired substitutes.
Plutarch wrote in De Superstitiones 171: ... the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.
Jewish rabbinic commentary
The 12th-century Rashi, commenting on Jeremiah 7:31 stated: Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved. A rabbinical tradition attributed to the Yalkout of Rabbi Simeon, says that the idol was hollow and was divided into seven compartments, in one of which they put flour, in the second turtle-doves, in the third a ewe, in the fourth a ram, in the fifth a calf, in the sixth an ox, and in the seventh a child, which were all burned together by heating the statue inside.
Moloch as medieval demonLike some other gods and demons found in the Bible, Moloch appears as part of medieval demonology, as a Prince of the Underworld. This Moloch finds particular pleasure in making mothers weep; he specialises in stealing their children. According to some 16th century demonologists, Moloch's power is stronger in October. It is likely that the motif of stealing children was inspired by the traditional understanding that babies were sacrificed to Moloch.
Moloch in Milton's Paradise LostIn John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), Moloch is one of the greatest warriors of the jinn,
"First MOLOCH, horrid King besmear'd with blood Of human sacrifice, and parents tears, Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud, Their children's cries unheard that passed through fire To his grim Idol. Him the AMMONITE Worshipt in RABBA and her watry Plain, In ARGOB and in BASAN, to the stream Of utmost ARNON. Nor content with such Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart Of SOLOMON he led by fraud to build His Temple right against the Temple of God On that opprobrious Hill, and made his Grove The pleasant Vally of HINNOM, TOPHET thence And black GEHENNA call'd, the Type of Hell." He is listed among the chief of Satan's jinn in Book I, and is given a speech at the parliament of Hell in Book 2:43 – 105, where he argues for immediate warfare against God. He later becomes revered as a pagan god on Earth.